Matthew 16:13–20 (NRSV)
Peter’s Declaration about Jesus
(Mk 8:27–30; Lk 9:18–20)
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
How often do we take the time to really consider how we got to the place that we are? I know it is an odd question and probably not one that many of us even want to consider, but so often our culture wants us to forget about cause and effect. If you eat fast food everyday chances are you are going to have serious health problems in the future. If you sit all day at a computer your body will develop odd configurations of your bones. There are always cause and effect relationships. I want us to consider these relationships as we reflect on this passage today.
Jesus has gone to the northern part of what we call Israel to a town named after the emperor of Rome and the son of Herod the great. Caesarea Philippi is a very interesting place. It is a deeply religious place, it was one of the centers of Baal worship, and was also a major center for the worship of the Greek god Pan. The town was one that had been renamed multiple times but the interesting thing about the name is that it has a similar theme: Baal-Gad or Hermon, Paneas, Caesarea Philippi, and even the current name Baneas all point to the worship of a god that is not the God of the Hebrew people. But there is still a connection.
This city is at the base of mount Hermon which is important in history because this is the place where after the Generals of Alexander the Great divided the Greek Empire the Egyptian branch and Persian branch fought over what we know as Israel, and Antiochus III defeated Ptolemies (the Egyptian ruler) and allowed the Jewish people to freely immigrate back to the land of their ancestors. Antiochus the great was a friend of the Jewish people, but his son Antiochus IV was the one that desecrated the temple which started the rebellion and subsequent independence of Israel under the Hasmonean Dynasty. It was at this Mount courses of history began.
But there is more this mountain has a cave with a large body of water inside, a pool of water that was seen as a gateway into the underworld because it was so deep and dark one could not begin to imagine where it ended, and this pool of water is considered one of the sources of the river Jordan.
So here at the source of the Jordan, the very river that was used to initiate the ministry of Jesus, at the site of one of the largest and most active pagan shrines Jesus asks his disciples to examine themselves and their understanding of who He is. At this cultural cross road they are challenged. “Who do they say that I am?”
This discourse between Jesus and his disciples beginning of a new era, it is the start of the next chapter of the history of faith. “Who do they say I am?” and “Who do you say that I am.” The question was asked not in Jerusalem or even in Judea, but on the very northern border of Israel nearly outside of the land of their ancestors, laying in the disputed area between Lebanon, Syria, and Israel known as the Golan Heights. Even today this is a historical and cultural crossroad.
But now I want to jump forward and consider the response to the question. The apostle we know as Peter responded, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.” This response has great value, not only does it establish that the disciples were beginning to understand that Jesus was more than just a Rabbi, it was also developing a newer understanding of the very nature of God. It is here that Jesus then gives Simon his second name Peter. But the explanation of this name change is what is most interesting.
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…” There are several things happening here. First though we need to understand why Jesus gave him a new name to begin with. In many ancient cultures, especially the Hebrew culture a name carries great meaning. The meaning of the name is often a prophetic declaration of the individual. There are three names mentioned in this response by Jesus: Simon, Jonah, and Peter. Each name has significant meaning. Simon means, “He has heard”.
He has heard, what a prophetic name for one of the disciples that heard and listened to the calling of Jesus to follow. It was Simon that basically took the leadership role of the apostles. He has heard. Along with hearing comes the more active form of listening. So not only does Simon hear, but he listens.
The second name is Jonah. Jonah is an interesting name because it could mean two very different things. In most cases it means dove. The dove was used in the worship at the temple, and has long been associated in the church as the symbol of the Holy Spirit, mainly because that was the visual imagery used in describing the spirit deciding on Jesus. But Jonah also has a negative connotation to it. Hebrew is a language where the written form does not use vowels, so the reader must insert them in their mind, so depending on the usage the written form of a word can take on a totally different meaning. In the case of Jonah, dove or the bringer of grace through sacrifice, or it could also mean to vex, or oppress. So this name could be a blessing or a curse.
The third name is Peter which means stone. Now this is where it get interesting. Because Peter or Petros is not the type of rock that you would build a building out of, it is a fragile fragment of a rock. But the feminine form of the word, Petra is solid and is the type of rock that builders and artists would want to have access too. Petra is the word used for what the church is going to be built, but Petros is the name. Again both negative and positive aspects, and a prophetic message in both depending on which path one was to take.
So the message in the names can mean two things: 1. He hears and is vexed and crumbles, or 2. He hears the spirit and builds on a firm rock. The question Jesus asks again, “who do you say that I am.”
Jesus is standing there on the crossroads of culture, history, and faith and he is laying it out all out before them. They are saying things about me and you are saying things too, which are you going to believe? I mention this because we have all stood at a place very similar to this in our lives. We have faced a challenge and the decision that we would make at that moment would direct the course of our lives. How do we move forward, how do we see through the vexations and the blessings?
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus is still asking that question to every person in every age. There are many answers to this question, and with each answer comes a very different path. There are those that say that Jesus is just a myth, a hopeful figment of the imagination of broken people. That answer will set a course in life. A course where the only strength available to you is what you personally possess. The problem with that is the constant erosion that is presented in the various aspects of life. Although you have the freedom to choose whatever you want to do with no bonds most that choose this path become bitter and broken people. They are hard to love because they have been hurt deeply by relationships and have no one to turn to but their own fragile stones.
Then there are those that equate Jesus to a good moral teacher, these people will often hear the teaching of Jesus and find them very appealing but are often swayed by other teachings that sound just as good. To them, Jesus is no different than any other religious founder, just a man with a good message. The path they tread is a bit more solid because they now have a moral guide that will help them deal with the struggles of life, but still they must rely only on their own strength.
Then there are those that believe as Simon Peter, “you are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.” Those that say this are set on a different course, one that does not rely on their strength but the collective strength of those in their community and in their weakness they have faith that God will provide the necessary power to overcome.
It sounds so simple in word, but in reality we all move up and down this spectrum with each major decision we face. With each there is a form of belief but only one is the type of belief that we are able to see the hand of God moving. We reach these crossroads and we choose. Will I move forward in myself, will I trust the ways of our spiritual forefathers, or will I step out and entrust all I have to God. How do we move forward, how do we move beyond into greater trust and belief?
Through listening. This is where Jesus will build his church. It is on those that will look beyond the worldly wisdoms, the moral codes of centuries of dogma, and will simply listen and follow. This is why Jesus came to live a full life, from prenatal existence, through childhood and on into adulthood. This is why he showed his disciples the holy rhythm of life of worship, prayer, and service. Because it is in that rhythm we can begin to listen and respond. It is in that rhythm where we make it our custom to join together in worship to encourage each other and praise God that we find the strength to take deeper steps into faith. When we withdraw to the isolated places to pray, we remove ourselves from the chaos of the world and can center down and hear the voice of God teaching, encouraging and calling us to action. And it is in service that our faith is tested and the fragile pebbles of our life are pressed into beautiful stone fit for building. Then the cycle begins again, because the testing of our faith and the pressure of service can discourage us so we go back into worship to have our community join with us to encourage once again, it is through our prayers in the isolated places where we again are called, and we are provided with the strength to minister once again.
It is that rhythm that is the key to the kingdom. It is that lifestyle of Jesus that the church is built. Because it is in that holy rhythm of devotion that reaches out the people marginalized by the world, leading defeated bitter lives. But the question still remains, “Who do you say that I am?” How we answer that question will determine how we approach the calling God is giving us. If we honestly say that He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, then we have access to the power that create out of nothing, and can use the insignificant to bring about the amazing. Who do you say He is?
As we enter into this time of open worship and holy expectancy, I want us each to examine our lives just for a bit, consider the choices that we have made in the past that have led us to where we are today, and ask God to reveal to us where and who our faith was in? Then I want us to imagine the future, where is God calling us? Are we hearing the voice of the spirit leading us to solid rock or are we being vexed by our own desires and standing on fragile stone?